Note: While reading a book whenever I come across something interesting, I highlight it on my Kindle. Later I turn those highlights into a blogpost. It is not a complete summary of the book. These are my notes which I intend to go back to later. Let’s start!
The orator Demosthenes once said that virtue begins with understanding and is fulfilled by courage. We must begin by seeing ourselves and the world in a new way for the first time. Then we must fight to be different and fight to stay different—that’s the hard part.
If ego is the voice that tells us we’re better than we really are, we can say ego inhibits true success by preventing a direct and honest connection to the world around us. One of the early members of Alcoholics Anonymous defined ego as “a conscious separation from.” From what? Everything. The ways this separation manifests itself negatively are immense: We can’t work with other people if we’ve put up walls. We can’t improve the world if we don’t understand it or ourselves. We can’t take or receive feedback if we are incapable of or uninterested in hearing from outside sources. We can’t recognize opportunities—or create them—if instead of seeing what is in front of us, we live inside our own fantasy. Without an accurate accounting of our own abilities compared to others, what we have is not confidence but delusion. How are we supposed to reach, motivate, or lead other people if we can’t relate to their needs —because we’ve lost touch with our own?
Among men who rise to fame and leadership two types are recognizable— those who are born with a belief in themselves and those in whom it is a slow growth dependent on actual achievement. To the men of the last type their own success is a constant surprise, and its fruits the more delicious, yet to be tested cautiously with a haunting sense of doubt whether it is not all a dream. In that doubt lies true modesty, not the sham of insincere selfdepreciation but the modesty of “moderation,” in the Greek sense. It is poise, not pose. One must ask: if your belief in yourself is not dependent on actual achievement, then what is it dependent on? The answer, too often when we are just setting out, is nothing. Ego. And this is why we so often see precipitous rises followed by calamitous falls.
One might say that the ability to evaluate one’s own ability is the most important skill of all. Without it, improvement is impossible. And certainly ego makes it difficult every step of the way. It is certainly more pleasurable to focus on our talents and strengths, but where does that get us? Arrogance and selfabsorption inhibit growth. So does fantasy and “vision.” In this phase, you must practice seeing yourself with a little distance, cultivating the ability to get out of your own head. Detachment is a sort of natural ego antidote. It’s easy to be emotionally invested and infatuated with your own work. Any and every narcissist can do that. What is rare is not raw talent, skill, or even confidence, but humility, diligence, and self-awareness.
- For your work to have truth in it, it must come from truth. If you want to be more than a flash in the pan, you must be prepared to focus on the long term. We will learn that though we think big, we must act and live small in order to accomplish what we seek. Because we will be action and education focused, and forgo validation and status, our ambition will not be grandiose but iterative—one foot in front of the other, learning and growing and putting in the time.
- It’s a temptation that exists for everyone—for talk and hype to replace action. The empty text box: “What’s on your mind?” Facebook asks. “Compose a new tweet,” Twitter beckons. Tumblr. LinkedIn. Our inbox, our iPhones, the comments section on the bottom of the article you just read. Blank spaces, begging to be filled in with thoughts, with photos, with stories. With what we’re going to do, with what things should or could be like, what we hope will happen. Technology, asking you, prodding you, soliciting talk. Almost universally, the kind of performance we give on social media is positive. It’s more “Let me tell you how well things are going. Look how great I am.” It’s rarely the truth: “I’m scared. I’m struggling. I don’t know.” At the beginning of any path, we’re excited and nervous. So we seek to comfort ourselves externally instead of inwardly. There’s a weak side to each of us, that—like a trade union—isn’t exactly malicious but at the end of the day still wants get as much public credit and attention as it can for doing the least. That side we call ego.
- It was easier to talk about writing, to do the exciting things related to art and creativity and literature, than to commit the act itself.
- Writing, like so many creative acts, is hard. Sitting there, staring, mad at yourself, mad at the material because it doesn’t seem good enough and you don’t seem good enough. In fact, many valuable endeavors we undertake are painfully difficult, whether it’s coding a new startup or mastering a craft. But talking, talking is always easy.
Think about it: a voice of a generation doesn’t call itself that. In fact, when you think about it, you realize just how little these voices seem to talk. It’s a song, it’s a speech, it’s a book—the volume of work may be light, but what’s inside it is concentrated and impactful. They work quietly in the corner. They turn their inner turmoil into product— and eventually to stillness. They ignore the impulse to seek recognition before they act. They don’t talk much. Or mind the feeling that others, out there in public and enjoying the limelight, are somehow getting the better end of the deal. (They are not.) They’re too busy working to do anything else. When they do talk—it’s earned. The only relationship between work and chatter is that one kills the other. Let the others slap each other on the back while you’re back in the lab or the gym or pounding the pavement. Plug that hole—that one, right in the middle of your face—that can drain you of your vital life force. Watch what happens. Watch how much better you get.
Whatever we seek to do in life, reality soon intrudes on our youthful idealism. This reality comes in many names and forms: incentives, commitments, recognition, and politics. In every case, they can quickly redirect us from doing to being. From earning to pretending. Ego aids in that deception every step of the way. It’s why Boyd wanted young people to see that if we are not careful, we can very easily find ourselves corrupted by the very occupation we wish to serve.
- Having authority is not the same as being an authority. Having the right and being right are not the same either. Being promoted doesn’t necessarily mean you’re doing good work and it doesn’t mean you are worthy of promotion (they call it failing upward in such bureaucracies). Impressing people is utterly different from being truly impressive.
- Think about this the next time you face that choice: Do I need this? Or is it really about ego? Are you ready to make the right decision? Or do the prizes still glitter off in the distance? To be or to do—life is a constant roll call.
- The mixed martial arts pioneer and multi-title champion Frank Shamrock has a system he trains fighters in that he calls plus, minus, and equal. Each fighter, to become great, he said, needs to have someone better that they can learn from, someone lesser who they can teach, and someone equal that they can challenge themselves against. The purpose of Shamrock’s formula is simple: to get real and continuous feedback about what they know and what they don’t know from every angle. It purges out the ego that puffs us up, the fear that makes us doubt ourselves, and any laziness that might make us want to coast. As Shamrock observed, “False ideas about yourself destroy you. For me, I always stay a student. That’s what martial arts are about, and you have to use that humility as a tool. You put yourself beneath someone you trust.” This begins by accepting that others know more than you and that you can benefit from their knowledge, and then seeking them out and knocking down the illusions you have about yourself.
Passion typically masks a weakness. Its breathlessness and impetuousness and franticness are poor substitutes for discipline, for mastery, for strength and purpose and perseverance. You need to be able to spot this in others and in yourself, because while the origins of passion may be earnest and good, its effects are comical and then monstrous. Passion is seen in those who can tell you in great detail who they intend to become and what their success will be like—they might even be able to tell you specifically when they intend to achieve it or describe to you legitimate and sincere worries they have about the burdens of such accomplishments. They can tell you all the things they’re going to do, or have even begun, but they cannot show you their progress. Because there rarely is any. How can someone be busy and not accomplish anything? Well, that’s the passion paradox. If the definition of insanity is trying the same thing over and over and expecting different results, then passion is a form of mental retardation— deliberately blunting our most critical cognitive functions. The waste is often appalling in retrospect; the best years of our life burned out like a pair of spinning tires against the asphalt.
When someone gets his first job or joins a new organization, he’s often given this advice: Make other people look good and you will do well. Keep your head down, they say, and serve your boss. Naturally, this is not what the kid who was chosen over all the other kids for the position wants to hear. It’s not what a Harvard grad expects—after all, they got that degree precisely to avoid this supposed indignity. Let’s flip it around so it doesn’t seem so demeaning: It’s not about kissing ass. It’s not about making someone look good. It’s about providing the support so that others can be good. The better wording for the advice is this: Find canvases for other people to paint on. Be an anteambulo. Clear the path for the people above you and you will eventually create a path for yourself. When you are just starting out, we can be sure of a few fundamental realities: 1) You’re not nearly as good or as important as you think you are; 2) You have an attitude that needs to be readjusted; 3) Most of what you think you know or most of what you learned in books or in school is out of date or wrong. There’s one fabulous way to work all that out of your system: attach yourself to people and organizations who are already successful and subsume your identity into theirs and move both forward simultaneously. It’s certainly more glamorous to pursue your own glory—though hardly as effective. Obeisance is the way forward.
- Belichick’s father, himself an assistant football coach for Navy, taught him a critical lesson in football politics: that if he wanted to give his coach feedback or question a decision, he needed to do it in private and self-effacingly so as not to offend his superior. He learned how to be a rising star without threatening or alienating anyone. In other words, he had mastered the canvas strategy.
- Crafting stories out of past events is a very human impulse. It’s also dangerous and untrue. Writing our own narrative leads to arrogance. It turns our life into a story—and turns us into caricatures—while we still have to live it.
We’re never happy with what we have, we want what others have too. We want to have more than everyone else. We start out knowing what is important to us, but once we’ve achieved it, we lose sight of our priorities. Ego sways us, and can ruin us.
- If you don’t know how much you need, the default easily becomes: more. And so without thinking, critical energy is diverted from a person’s calling and toward filling a bank account. When “you combine insecurity and ambition,” the plagiarist and disgraced journalist Jonah Lehrer said when reflecting back on his fall, “you get an inability to say no to things.” Ego rejects trade-offs. Why compromise? Ego wants it all.
- It doesn’t matter if you’re a billionaire, a millionaire, or just a kid who snagged a good job early. The complete and utter sense of certainty that got you here can become a liability if you’re not careful. The demands and dream you had for a better life? The ambition that fueled your effort? These begin as earnest drives but left unchecked become hubris and entitlement. The same goes for the instinct to take charge; now you’re addicted to control. Driven to prove the doubters wrong? Welcome to the seeds of paranoia. Yes, there are legitimate stresses and anguish that come with the responsibilities of your new life. All the things you’re managing, the frustrating mistakes of people who should know better, the endless creep of obligations—no one prepares us for that, which makes the feelings all the harder to deal with. The promised land was supposed to be nice, not aggravating. But you can’t let the walls close in on you. You’ve got to get yourself—and your perceptions— under control.